Secrets of Handgun Grip

posted on August 8, 2018

Let’s just say you are looking for a handgun. You ask a friend who has a few guns—thereby making him your de facto expert—and he says, “Get a blank.” Blank can mean about any handgun on the market. You asked your “expert” a simple question and received a simple answer—which you may think you were looking for. Blank may look cool and all the cool tactical guys may shoot a blank, but is it your best choice? Beginning handgunners can easily find themselves in the untenable position of trying to learn to shoot a gun that they probably can never truly master because the pistol does not fit them. A lot is written and about rifle and shotgun fit, but handgun fit is largely ignored. Consequently, many people go to a gun store looking for their first handgun find they are overwhelmed.

Handguns are the most difficult firearms to learn because they are small, relatively lightweight and have limited points of contact with the shooter. Even a rimfire handgun can be a problem if the shooter cannot maintain a consistent and repeatable grip on the gun. Handling the gun, acquiring a sight picture, shooting it, controlling and recovering from the recoil and reacquiring the sight pictureall of these tasks are demanded of relatively long, unsupported limbs with multiple joints, muscles that quiver and fidgety nerves. Consider the competitive slow-fire shooter: His or her stocks are often custom-made to fit their hand and full of swells and curves mimicking the profile of their hand in order to maximize the contact surface and minimize movement. Such stocks are not practical for an everyday carry or even a hunting handgun, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t do as much as possible to make the handgun fit our hand(s).

On a single-action revolver (SAA) the grip frame and stocks are pretty simple. The grip frame is shaped much like an old plow handle. Aside being wickedly elegant, it is a remarkably efficient shape given the way a single-action revolver is deployed. The rounded plow handle tends to rotate in the hand during recoil and does a couple of things. First, the recoil energy is dispersed, making it less punishing, especially in the heavier calibers. Secondly, the hammer is positioned right where it needs to be for re-cocking if an additional shot is needed. The size and shape of the classic SAA grip and its subsequent clones is almost universal because of the way the revolver is handled during shooting. Since trigger movement is minimal to fire the revolver, there are no issues with the distance between the web of the shooting hand and the position of the trigger finger pad unless your hand is exceedingly large and you have very long fingers. If that is the case, there are plenty of aftermarket grip or stock makers who can create an oversized set of stocks to correct that.

The problem, however, becomes more complex with double-action revolvers and semi-auto pistols—whether double action or striker fired. With these handguns the trigger must travel a longer distance in order to fire the gun, and that trigger must be controlled throughout its travel. Too, if the pistol has a double-column magazine or the frame of the revolver is quite large, it can be difficult for a person with shorter fingers to position the pistol in their shooting hand to properly address the recoil. Often what happens is that person must rotate their shooting hand in such a way that their thumb is forced to absorb the recoil of the gun. This is a poor choice at best. First, it can be painful if the pistol or revolver is chambered in a powerful cartridge. And even if it isn’t, the movement of the thumb during recoil is an impediment to accuracy because it introduces an inconsistency in the way the gun is gripped.

I have a very good friend and shooting buddy who is blessed with hands the size of a fielder’s glove. He can wrap his fingers around the outsized—at least for many of us—grip frame of a double-column, .45-caliber H&K USP pistol as if it were designed specifically for him. Yet if you hand him a small-framed revolver like a Smith & Wesson J-frame with the standard skimpy stocks, it will rattle around in his big old paw like a BB in a boxcar. The handling difficulties this introduces is just as frustrating for him as it is with for petite gal trying to manage a double-wide Glock. I have short, thick fingers aboard a fairly wide but thick palm. This makes a Glock a non-starter for me. That’s not the fault of the Glock, it’s just my bad luck in the hand-gene department. For that and another reason I’ll get to in a moment I have to stick with my tried and true 1911s—and they must have the old short trigger.

In double-action revolvers a similar problem exists. The distance between the rear of the grip frame where the web of the shooting hand goes to the center of the trigger at rest—the length of pull, if you will—determines to a large extent whether you will be able to handle and shoot the revolver effectively. A revolver’s stocks can be made thinner or thicker to a point to make it easier to handle the piece, but the overall distance of the grip frame to the trigger sets the parameters.

An N-frame Smith & Wesson with factory target stocks is almost impossible for me to handle with my thick palm and bratwurst-like digits. For years I fiddled and fidgeted with aftermarket stocks. In my effort to be able to properly address the trigger I searched for stocks that were considerably thinner than factory target ones. Some were so thin that recoil in my .44 Magnums became painful. Now with custom stocks from Herrett’s I have found the best compromise. It still is a bit of a stretch, but I am able to manage it.

When it comes to the very popular small revolvers—epitomized by the Smith & Wesson J-frame—the opposite problem arises. The tiny grip frame of these revolvers means that contact with the shooting hand—especially in the palm where most of the recoil should be addressed—is minimal. This makes controlling these little guns a real problem, even more so when powerful +P ammo is used. Again, aftermarket stock makers come to the rescue. The best I have found come from Craig Spegel. His Boot Grip completely redefines the handling characteristics of my J-frames. Be forewarned, however, Spegel is often backordered, so getting your pocket revolver suitably cloaked may take a while.

The last consideration for handgun fit is the angle of the grip relative to the line of the barrel. When double-action revolvers and semi-autos were first produced, American gun makers believed—correctly in my not-so-humble opinion—that handgun shooters would naturally want their guns to shoot as if they were pointing their index finger toward the target with a straight and locked wrist. Smith & Wesson and John M. Browning both found that a grip angle of 118 degrees from the centerline of the barrel to be the most comfortable and natural angle. With this angle the piece comes up and the sights are immediately visible and ready for fine adjustment onto the target.

The Europeans, of course, just have to be different. Georg Luger, the folks at Steyr, H&K with its P7 and Gaston Glock insist that a sharper angle of 122 degrees to be better. Browning played with the notion with his 22 Automatic—later to be called the Colt Woodsman—but returned to his original angle for the P35 Hi Power pistol. Fact is, you can learn to shoot either well, which is likely a statement to the resiliency of humans rather than any “magic angle.” I still prefer the 118-degree grip angle on my 1911s. Could I learn to adjust to a Glock? Probably, but after shooting with a locked wrist for nearly 50 years I simply do not want to relearn how to shoot a pistol. As they say, your mileage may vary.

Those of you preparing to purchase your first handgun—revolver or semi-auto—or who may be assisting a friend or significant other with their first purchase would be well advised to pay more than casual attention to the fit of your prospective purchase in your hands. That striker-fired, double-wide semi-auto that carries half a box of cartridges in its magazine may be what the cool kids are packing, but if you cannot wrap your hands around it enough to control it—especially under the stress of a fight—perhaps another pistol may be in order.




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